The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Weinstein? How a powerful but obscure figure touched off a social movement

Harvey Weinstein attends the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival in New York in April. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Donald Trump didn’t do it.

Nor did Bill Clinton, Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes or Bill O’Reilly.

None of these famous men, each publicly accused of sexual harassment or assault, touched off the cultural reckoning that has swept America and other parts of the world over the past three months.

The honor, or perhaps dishonor, goes to a far more obscure and unlikely figure: Harvey Weinstein. The Hollywood producer’s alleged predations unleashed the outpouring of #MeToo revelations on social media along with echoing volleys of claims against more than 100 prominent men in news, entertainment, government and other fields.

Why Weinstein? Why did his story inspire a cultural eruption, particularly given that most people probably couldn't identify him before the New York Times and the New Yorker revealed his secret history in articles that became the spore of the anti-harassment movement?

There’s no hard and fast explanation. But there are a few theories.

Social media played a role, making a story that began in the mass media into something personal and intimate. The timing seems important, too, coming after years of pent-up anger about harassment, rape and assault that has been bubbling like lava just below the surface.

Harvey Weinstein has demonstrated his power at the Academy Awards for decades — the organization’s board has now expelled him. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post, Photo: DAVE CAULKIN/The Washington Post)

But perhaps the most important factor was the identity of the victims, not of the alleged perpetrator.

"The first [Weinstein] stories had highly identifiable victims, people everyone knew," said Teresa Younger, chief executive of the Ms. Foundation for Women, a charitable organization. "These were wealthy white women whose images people have seen for years and years. . . . They were trusted and believed" in ways that previous accusers might not have been.

She is referring to the early wave of Hollywood actresses who went public with their stories of abuse by Weinstein. Ashley Judd appeared in the first paragraph of the first Times article. Her account was followed within days by similar claims from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Heather Graham, Mira Sorvino and Rosanna Arquette. Another actress-director, Asia Argento, told the New Yorker that Weinstein raped her.

Other famous people responded by condemning Weinstein — Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Lena Dunham, Brie Larson, Amber Tamblyn, George Clooney, America Ferrera, Lupita Nyong’o and Brooklyn Decker among them.

The celebrity aspect of the story made Weinstein different from almost every alleged perpetrator before him: Many of the accusers were better known than the accused.

Although some of the women who brought allegations against other men became well known — such as Thomas accuser Anita Hill and Clinton accuser Paula Jones — their fame was based almost entirely on their accusations.

The Hollywood element also had the effect of lifting the story out of the realm of politics, where partisanship has often fogged the issue, as it did in the Thomas, Clinton and Trump accusations. It also created a media hurricane.

The reaction to the Times's first Weinstein revelations "staggered" editors and reporters at the paper, said Jodi Kantor, the reporter who with colleague Megan Twohey broke the story.

“Before publication, our editors pointed out that Harvey Weinstein was not a household name,” Kantor said. “In interviews over the summer, more than a few people in the film business told us that our work would not matter. Weinstein’s behavior had been an open secret for years, they said. Everyone knew and no one cared. Even if we were able to document the allegations, nothing would change, they predicted.”

Social media helped turn the story into a personal crusade, with women talking to women in a way that was impossible when Anita Hill first appeared, said Casie Yoder, a spokeswoman for 9to5, an organization that advocates in behalf of working women. The #MeToo hashtag, with which women shared their own harassment stories, became "a tsunami," she said. "When so many people are speaking out day after day after day, you can't ignore that."

The tinder that seemed to burst into flames all at once may have been smoldering for many years. The 2016 election — pitting a man accused by multiple women of harassment against a woman whose husband had been accused of the same thing — helped prime women and the popular culture at large for a conflagration, said Nikki Usher, an associate professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

“Trump is Teflon, but it doesn’t mean that people weren’t disgusted by his comments on the [‘Access Hollywood’] tape,” she said. “For many women, even those who aren’t fans of Clinton, the fact that a more qualified woman lost out to a less qualified man on the nation’s biggest stage was just a reminder that no woman, no matter how much she has achieved, gets a fair shot, because she starts out with a disadvantage: her gender.”

An important precedent for the reaction to Weinstein was the Women's March the day after Trump's inauguration, she said. The event, whose symbolic "pussy hats" explicitly linked to Trump's vulgar reference on the tape, drew hundreds of thousands not just to Washington, but to marches all over the world.

Given all that preceded Weinstein, Usher says Anita Hill really deserves to be known as the godmother of the cultural moment.

“Much of our modern sexual-harassment legislation and training all come in response to her,” she said. “She also was the case study for ‘blame the victim,’ and as a result, there was much more of a conversation about how survivors matter.”

Still, it’s been Weinstein and his accusers that have helped propel the wave that has washed away so many men whose careers soared in the years after Hill. And those accusers may have succeeded in institutionalizing new standards of conduct, a change that eluded Hill and many women who followed her.

“We won’t go back to business as usual,” said the Ms. Foundation’s Younger. “This is a pivotal time for change.”